HOWARD HAWKS: American Artist
Edited by Jim Hillier and Peter Wollen
British Film Institute. 252 pp. $45. Paperback, $19.95

HOWARD HAWKS: The Grey Fox of Hollywood
By Todd McCarthy
Grove. 756 pp. $35

Go to the first chapter of "Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood"

By David Thomson
British Film Classics. 73 pp. Paperback, $9.95

JEAN ARTHUR: The Actress Nobody Knew
By John Oller
Limelight Editions. 358 pp. $25

Go to Chapter One


Shooting From The Hip

By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, June 15, 1997

"I do not think one can love any film deeply," wrote a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, "if one does not deeply love the films of Howard Hawks." "If I were to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood," wrote the English critic Robin Wood, "I think it would be [Hawks's] 'Rio Bravo.' "

The gathering of these and other encomiums in one volume, Howard Hawks: American Artist, is testimony to the lofty reputation of the man who directed such varied classics as "Scarface," "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday" and "Red River." If that reputation was a long time rising, part of the reason is Hawks's homespun sensibility. During the middle part of this century, while Europeans were celebrating his work, American critics tended to neglect it in favor of anything foreign and plotless. That era of snobbery seems to be over: Howard Hawks: American Artist contains multiple takes on Hawks by enthusiastic American critics -- James Agee, Molly Haskell, Stanley Cavell and Naomi Wise, to name just a few.

For biographer Todd McCarthy, the quintessential Hawks movie is "To Have and Have Not." It features the director's recurrent lineup -- men who team up to transact dicey business (smuggling members of the French Resistance into Martinique) and the women who distract them (how are you going to get any work done with Lauren Bacall slouching around the premises?) -- and it highlights Hawks's ability to reshape strong material to suit his imagination. You may recall that "To Have" marked Bogie and Bacall's sexy first pairing, that it derived from an Ernest Hemingway novel adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, and that it was made at Warner Brothers in the wake of "Casablanca," to which it bears a clannish resemblance.

"And yet," McCarthy observes, "through the strength of his own will, Howard Hawks was able to bend all these exceptional forces to effect a maximum expression of his own worldview. No matter the degree to which one can detect elements of Hemingway, Faulkner, Casablanca, or, for that matter, Conrad, Sternberg, and the demands of Hollywood escapism, the film To Have and Have Not is, beyond doubt, exactly the work its director intended it to be, and would have been nothing like this in the hands of anyone else."

Exactly right, and the same can be said of most Hawks movies. His success in putting his seal on them becomes more understandable, though, in light of his freelancing habit. He seldom entered into long-term contracts and kept on the move as he made films of high quality and flamboyant variety. Hawks is the director whom, in the 1950s, auteur critics rushed to embrace: You are naturally freer to express your slant on the world despite the homogenizing effects of the Hollywood system when you sweep from studio to studio, choosing your projects and often producing and co-writing them in addition to directing.

But Hawks could never have struck such advantageous deals in the first place if he hadn't turned out hits. Though in person he was austere, almost forbidding, for the better part of four decades what he liked to put on the screen coincided uncannily with what audiences liked to see there.

How Hawks psyched out the public's taste is something of a mystery. He was born in 1896 to a patrician Indiana family of timber barons. He prepped at Phillips Exeter and took an engineering degree at Cornell. His early love was airplanes, but the family's move to California for his mother's health had brought him into proximity with the movie studios. Although filmmaking appealed to the tinkerer in him, it wasn't long before he was writing screenplays. He first directed in 1926 and didn't stop until 1970, seven years before his death.

He made some turkeys ("A Song Is Born," "Rio Lobo"), and in his later years he arrogantly ignored his budgets, but his mystique was such that even bulldog bosses like Jack Warner shied away from confronting him. One of Hawks's weapons, according to McCarthy, was exploiting his posh background. Pretending to be above money worries (in reality his gambling habit often left him strapped), he would threaten to quit a movie if the studio showed signs of meddling. That occasionally he did walk added to his bargaining power.

McCarthy, a film critic for Variety, has ably captured a frequently off-putting man: Hawks kept his wives and children at a distance and told whoppers in which he always came out inspired and triumphant. The author is particularly good on directorial technique. Here, for example, is his lucid explanation of why Hawks was often at odds with the system: His "methods of slowly working out the mechanics and timing of a scene, of honing character interplay, of rewriting on the set, of giving his leads a long leash to pursue flights of fancy of their own, of calling impromptu cast and crew conferences to see if anyone had any better ideas of how to play a scene, and of generally taking his time to ensure the best possible results ran completely contrary to the values of [studio executives] to whom counting the days and dollars was of primary importance."

I've always preferred "To Have and Have Not" to "The Big Sleep," Hawks's second vehicle for Bogart and Bacall, despite the latter film's dark humor and origin in a Raymond Chandler novel. "The Big Sleep" strikes me as an unsatisfying melange of admittedly brilliant set-pieces (I'm talking about the movie as released; the newly restored original version, I a.m. told, tells a more coherent story.). Now comes David Thomson, perhaps our best writer on the movies, to argue that this looseness is the point. "The Big Sleep," he believes, is "post-modern, camp, satirical." Whether or not this persuades, Thomson's agile mind is a pleasure to follow, and his little book makes for one of the best entries in the British Film Institute's Classic Films series.

Jean Arthur worked for Hawks only once, but it was a memorable collaboration: "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939), a boisterously compelling story of pilots charged with getting air freight over the Andes. Cary Grant plays the callous flyer-in-chief, and Arthur is a showgirl sojourning in the jungle-airport compound where most of the action takes place. After falling in love with the Grant character, she's got to decide whether he has a heart or not.

Best-known for her portrayals of the tough-talking working woman with a tender core (notably in Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"), Arthur is miscast here as a tootsie -- she's too refined to muster the swagger that, say, Barbara Stanwyck would have brought to the role. But if you make a minor adjustment -- pretend that Arthur's character is a former debutante who unbent to go into showbiz -- all doubts about her work melt away.

In real life, she was a peculiar case. Plagued by insecurities, she quit the business in 1944, at the height of her box-office prowess, to attend college, undergo psychoanalysis, and otherwise find herself. So far so good. But this late-blooming pilgrim had already been corrupted by the imperial treatment lavished on movie stars. Later she kept launching comebacks, on film, stage, and TV, and spoiling most of them by coming down with psychosomatic symptoms, such as losing her voice -- that sand-edged instrument that Pauline Kael calls "one of the best sounds in the romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s." The problem, as John Oller demonstrates in his biography, was that every time Arthur crumbled, the show, which had been built around her, foundered, throwing the company out of work and costing the investors their dough. It was one thing to be sick, whether in the body or the head; it was another to be heedless of consequences.

Oller, a New York lawyer, writes clearly and crisply, and his portrait of Arthur the person is complex and convincing. But his book seems a bit rushed, with little analysis of her performances. Fortunately, much of her work is out on video, where you can see for yourself that during her salad days -- from 1935 to '44 -- there wasn't a better actress in Hollywood than Jean Arthur.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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